Improving governors, expanding church schools, for-profits in schools, Ken Robinson's attack on Gove, teacher pay and the TES podcast

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Improving the quality of governors. The issue that just won't go away - 04 July 2013

Considering the amount of time they give up for a worthy cause, appreciation for school governors is in short supply.

The stereotype of governors being well-meaning busybodies with little expert knowledge has proved to be a tough one to shake off. Last year, Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief inspector of England's schools inspectorate Ofsted, infamously derided those governors who are more preoccupied with "lunches and loos" than raising attainment levels.

A report from the Commons Education Select Committee of the UK Parliament, published today, calls for a shake-up in the world of school governance, including bringing elements of the boardroom to the school office.

And the aspect of the report that has attracted most attention? The call for stronger powers to sack poorly performing governors.

But there are a number of other interesting suggestions. While the report stops short of calling for governors to be paid as a matter of course, it suggests there could be "a case for remuneration in some circumstances", such as where they help out in other schools.

Just as significantly, the report recommends schools should introduce professional governors' clerks. Their status, committee chairman Graham Stuart insists, should be "similar to a company secretary".

Despite the tone of the some of the report, the select committee's input was welcomed by Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governors' Association, particularly its recommendations about improving training and governors not necessarily being paid.

"We are of the opinion that `volunteer' is not synonymous with `amateur' and governors can do a professional job without being paid," she said.

Stephen Exley

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Are Michael Goves plans for the expansion of church schools taking us back to the Victorian era? - 04 July 2013

Michael Gove has been accused of taking education back to the Victorian era on numerous occasions. His love of rigour, poetry recitals and old-fashioned "kings and queens" history teaching are all famous. It was the era of empire, industrialists and the poor depending on the church and charity for sustenance and education.

So it was perhaps no surprise when the education secretary yesterday called upon the Church of England to increase its involvement in schools, approaching it with the vigour it did in the 19th century.

"I want the Church to recover the spirit which infused its educational mission in Victorian times and support more new schools - especially academies and free schools" he said in a statement.

This, he said, would "bring educational excellence to the nation's poorest children."

At a Lambeth Palace seminar hosted by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, he said that the church should take on a "more energetic role" in educational provision.

His words came as it emerged the government is to allow community schools to join CofE academy chains, without losing their non-faith character.

Clearly, as the academies revolution takes hold and the power of local authorities falls away, Mr Gove is looking for a reliable authority to take charge. And the church is a natural contender. It is already the largest academy sponsor and runs a quarter of primary schools, so it has the track record he is looking for and church-leaders have long held expansionist ambitions in education.

The news has, quite inevitably, outraged secularists who fear a creeping spread of faith schools. Chair of the Accord Coalition, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, said that in the Victorian era, state-funded faith schools could not select students on the grounds of their beliefs, whilst they could now.

Meanwhile at the Lambeth Palace seminar, Michael Gove has admitted his neglect of religious education since the coalition came to power.

The Rt Revd John Pritchard, chair of the Church of England's board of education, suggested that the exclusion of RE from the English Baccalaureate and cuts to RE teacher training places and bursaries had been "demoralising".

Mr Gove replied that because RE is a statutory subject, he had wrongly believed it would be adequately protected in schools: "Therefore I've concentrated on other areas," he said, "I think RE has suffered as a result of my belief that the protection it had in curriculum was sufficient and I don't think I've done enough.

"A set of accumulated actions, all of which are defensible in their own right, when viewed in the round, can seem like thoughtlessness or indifference."

Irena Barker

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Are we on the cusp of progress when it comes to getting looked-after kids into uni? - 03 July 2013

For some years now, universities have been making concerted efforts to recruit bright students from underprivileged backgrounds. This has partly been out of a sense of social responsibility, a desire to widen the pool of recruitment, and as a result of pressure from politicians and of late the Office for Fair Access (OFFA).

But until recently, one group of particularly disadvantaged teenagers has been somewhat left by the wayside: children leaving care.

Official government statistics show that in 2012, only 7 per cent of children who were looked after at 16 years old were in higher education by the age of 19. This shocking statistic should rest heavily on the shoulders of universities, local authorities and schools.

However, OFFA's annual report, out today, has revealed that the situation may be changing. It claims that "good progress" is now being made in providing support for former care leavers.

Most significantly, it announced that the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) will, from 2013-14, collect data on the university destinations of the care leavers who do get into higher education. Including care leavers in the official statistics may not seem like much, but it is a clear nod from officials want to come up with a clear strategy based on the facts.

In addition, OFFA's report noted that 71 universities now have the Buttle UK Quality Mark for Care Leavers. Universities who qualify have proven they provide services such as guaranteed year-round education for students who have no family home to return to. They also agreed to provide targeted support for care leavers as they settle into the foreign environment of a university.

Around eight out of ten universities have also included this neglected group in their 2013-14 access agreements - meaning that their right to charge certain levels of fees will, in part, depend on them targeting outreach work on care leavers.

While there is clearly a long road ahead, the will seems to be there. These moves, coupled with large-scale initiatives to increase boarding school places for at-risk children, such as the Assisted Boarding Network, show a move in the right direction.

Irena Barker

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Where next after levels? How will schools keep Ofsted happy? - 03 July 2013

The system of levels as a way of measuring students' progress is confusing, education secretary for England Michael Gove announced last month, and will be abolished as part of his ongoing campaign to free schools from regulation.

The use of levels has been under fire for some time - they are "too broad and not consistent" Lord Bew said in his review of primary assessment (of children aged 4-11) and "distorted children's learning" according to the National Curriculum Review panel, so it is not surprising there was some cheering from the rafters.

But school staff were quick to point out that assessment of children would not suddenly stop, simply because levels have gone. Teachers assess children all day, every day, even if they hate the measuring tool.

But with choice comes a certain amount of stumbling about in the dark.

The NAHT headteachers' union has now said that it will illuminate one issue by setting up a commission charged with developing a set of principles for good assessment.

These would allow headteachers to benchmark whatever system they adopt in place of levels and be reassured that it's up to the mark.

Why would this be necessary? Well, like so much in education, because of schools inspectorate Ofsted, of course. Russell Hobby, the NAHT general secretary, says that his organisation is attempting to help answer the question that all heads ask when faced with reform: "What will Ofsted do?"

Put simply, if inspectors arrive at your school asking about how you measure progress, you will be able to point out that your system can be benchmarked against the best.

"What heads want to know is whether the system they are using will be recognised by the people they are accountable to, particularly inspection teams," Hobby said. "Ofsted are facing having to send teams to grapple with 22,000 different systems so, while there is not one national system, one set of principles that systems adhere to provides a certain level of coherence."

But the answer to the big issue: "What is the future of statutory assessment?" still remains to be seen.

Helen Ward

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DfE insider: Michael Gove has vetoed for-profit companies running schools - 02 July 2013

Profit-making in schools is a "dead" issue and civil servants should stop wasting their time on it - or so says England's education secretary Michael Gove.

At least that has been the message coming out of Sanctuary Buildings since The Independent newspaper's front-page story broke this morning.

The Indy's splash ran with the headline "Education for sale: Gove plans to let firms run schools for profit" and in essence said that Mr Gove was considering the controversial move in order to prevent his academies revolution from stalling.

According to The Independent, the details about changes to academy regulations allowing them to be run for profit come from high-level discussions within the Department for Education, which have been leaked by insiders to the newspaper.

Unsurprisingly, any suggestion of academy chains being run by businesses who could find money by selling off land or raise debts against the school by borrowing cash has been met with outrage from many corners, not least the unions.

But a very senior source within the department has told TES that no discussions have been held about profit since 2011 and that the policy is a dead rubber.

"The last serious conversation about profits was in July 2011 when Michael Gove told senior staff that profits were `dead' as an idea and `nobody should waste time thinking about it'," the source said.

Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg gave a speech following a previous story about academies being run for profit, in which he said there would be "no profit" in schools.

"Nobody senior here has thought seriously about profits since," the source added.

It will be interesting to see if this remains the case if the Conservatives win an all-out majority in the next general election.

Richard Vaughan

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Ken Robinson attacks "preposterously rude" Michael Gove, condemning him for "alienating the profession" - 01 July 2013

He has become one of education's most sought-after speakers, wowing global online audiences of millions with his calls for more creativity in schools.

But in a talk today, Sir Ken Robinson showed that he does more than big picture "education paradigms" with a blistering attack on the UK's coalition government.

The former University of Warwick professor and adviser to the last Labour government described Michael Gove as "preposterously rude and outrageous", claiming that the education secretary took an overly narrow view of education, before condemning him for alienating teachers.

"This particular government still labours under the misapprehension that the highest form of human aspiration is to go to Oxford or Cambridge," Sir Ken told the Royal Society of Arts in London. "The idea that the whole purpose of education and its success is to be judged by entrance to these two universities is preposterous.we can't all go."

The emphasis placed by ministers on Oxbridge reflected an "obsession" with a particular type of academic ability, he said. "I have been around long enough now to have seen many secretaries of state come undone and I look forward with enthusiasm to my next experience of this very process."

He said that when governments went into "command and control mode", they misunderstood what was needed to motivate teachers. "We have a situation here in the UK now where most of the major teacher unions have passed votes of no confidence in the government's education strategy," he said.

"That shouldn't promote a smug expression of satisfaction on the government. That should keep them awake all night thinking, `Hang on, how badly have we got this wrong?'.

"You cannot improve education by alienating the profession that carries it out."

Asked why Mr Gove did not take more account of teachers' views, Sir Ken said: "I wouldn't presume to peer into the psychology of Michael Gove. I think that is a dangerous place to go. I don't have the strength of character to come out of there alive."

He concluded by attacking Mr Gove's "egregious" description of critical education academics as a "blob" that was damaging education. "I think it is preposterously rude and outrageous from anybody, but from a secretary of state for education to attack the people who do the work in the field and have devoted their lives to it?" Sir Ken said, incredulously. "I think it is beyond belief."

Unsurprisingly, the government mounted a vigorous defence of its record. "We are driving up standards across the country and ensuring we have an education system that matches the world's best," a Department for Education spokesman said. "And while some people may think it is OK that just 40 of the 80,000 children on free school meals in a year group make it to Oxbridge, we emphatically disagree.

"As well as increasing academic rigour, we are transforming vocational education to recognise only high-quality courses that lead to a skilled trade or profession.

"Teaching is very popular. More top graduates and professionals are coming into teaching than ever before."

William Stewart

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Six-week summer holidays: Michael Gove sets his sights on his latest target - 01 July 2013

Michael Gove is a man who is clearly unafraid of challenging the sacred cows of the education establishment.

But today he moved to tackle the most sacred of them all - the six-week summer holiday.

While academies are already free to set their own term dates, the Education Act 2002 requires local authorities to set the terms for maintained schools. And local authorities tend to prefer to stick to the tried-and-tested formula to keep everyone happy. Few have dared to contemplate deviating from the status quo. The ones that have, such as Nottingham - which wanted a five-term year - have faced massive union opposition and been forced to backtrack.

But the new Deregulation Bill proposes that maintained schools - including the majority of primaries - would not have to accept the term dates set by local authorities. They would still have to operate with a minimum of 190 school days each year but from September 2015 could opt for sorter summer breaks, if they so wish.

The Department for Education said that terms should be decided by "heads and teachers who know their parents and pupils best", but Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has his doubts.

"Most schools choose to follow the local authority calendar because they know that it's better for parents who have children in different schools and teachers who want their holidays to coincide with their children's," he said. "The problem will come if no one is responsible for creating a coordinated calendar for an area and it turns into a free for all. Somebody needs to take the lead locally on deciding term dates and it makes sense for this to be the local authority, even if schools aren't required by law to follow it."

Stephen Exley

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Durand Academy's plans for new rural boarding school for inner-city kids face yet more criticism - 01 July 2013

As far as ambitious schemes go, plans to bus hundreds of teenagers from inner-city London to a state boarding school in a mock-Tudor mansion in the South Downs National Park every Monday morning were always going to be contentious.

Not surprisingly, the Department for Education's decision to hand pound;17 million to the Durand Academy - the school behind the project - has come in for some strong criticism. The scheme has been condemned by residents as opening up the risk of creating a "white elephant in a national park" - and one councillor went so far as to argue that a "sexual volcano" would ensue as a result of "spoiling a tranquil place" by "bringing Brixton to the countryside".

But it's not just the locals who are worried about the project. TES has seen correspondence from the National Audit Office (NAO) that reveals the government's financial watchdog also has significant concerns about the department's decision to fund the scheme.

The department, a letter from the NAO's head Amyas Morse argues, "lacked sufficient appreciation of the scale of financial and operating risk association with the project". It conducted only "limited" assessments of the scheme's feasibility, which meant "no estimate was made of the likelihood or scale of the financial risk to the department should the project prove financially unsuccessful".

A separate letter from Margaret Hodge, chair of the Public Accounts Committee - which asked the NAO to investigate - says it found there was no evidence the department had "robustly tested" Durand's calculations and assumptions. It also said there "is a risk that the [Durand Educational] Trust's current proposal for boarding costs may be underestimated".

Ms Hodge concluded: "I remain concerned about the scale of uncertainty in several areas of the project, notably the trust's financial contribution to the school and the ability of the school to act as a going concern."

In short, there are plenty of the questions for the Department for Education and Durand to answer. And the members of Woolbeding with Redford Parish Council, which initially raised the concerns, won't have long to wait: they were due to meet schools minister Lord Nash today.

A spokesman for the school, however, insisted that there was nothing to worry about: "Innovation in education is never easy. But if no one pushes forward, if no one pushes the boundaries, we all end up standing still.

"This is a new model, but revenue forecasts, capital costs and savings plans for the boarding school have been examined in depth and approved by the school's financial advisers. The Department for Education has also concluded that Durand's innovative cost plan is viable - as reflected in the school's funding agreement."

Stephen Exley

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

Pupil places crisis: Lots of blame being thrown around but where's the action? - 28 June 2013

The usual blame game was being played today as the looming crisis in school places reared its head yet again.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which holds the government to account on its spending, has issued a scathing summary of the response to the growing problem. About 256,000 new school places are needed by September 2014 but, according to the PAC, the Department for Education doesn't even know whether the pound;5 billion it has set aside to deal with the problem will be enough.

Margaret Hodge, chair of the PAC, criticised the government, adding that the shortage of places is likely to have a detrimental effect on children's learning.

"It does not take much imagination to realise that educational opportunities and standards might be diminished if specialist areas, such as music rooms and libraries, are converted into classrooms, poorly performing schools expanded, or playgrounds used to house children in overcrowded demountables," she said.

Ms Hodge is Labour's MP for Barking, an area among the worst affected by the problem. Her comments, however, were rebuffed by schools minister David Laws, who said that the crisis was down to the previous Labour government.

"Margaret Hodge is right that there is a severe need to ensure there are enough school places but she has failed to pin the blame where it belongs: at the door of the last government, of which she was a member," Mr Laws said.

"Her report correctly states that the department `failed to adequately plan' for the rising population, but does not explain that the responsibility for this failure lies with the previous schools secretary, Ed Balls, who ignored the rising birth rates reported by the ONS [Office for National Statistics]," he added.

Mr Laws is right, of course: Labour did not pay enough attention to the ever-increasing numbers supplied by the ONS. But the coalition government was itself very slow to heed the warnings when it came to power in 2010, focusing on the slow trickle of free schools rather than opening the floodgates to allow more places. Here's a TES invesigation into the problem from some time ago.

Since then, Chancellor George Osborne has been throwing money at the problem, announcing billions in consecutive Budgets. And education secretary Michael Gove has even handed part of his pet free-school policy over to local authorities, allowing them to decide where the need for new schools is greatest - bureaucracy that the policy was supposed to circumvent.

Despite these efforts, it is beginning to look like too little, too late. And for the teachers, pupils and parents who have to deal with the consequences - bigger classes, temporary accommodation - the blame game doesn't help.

A lovely new TES podcast is ready for a listen, you lucky people - 27 June 2013

The TES team discuss this week's issue including a look at why children as young as three are being given psychotropic drugs to tackle ADHD, whether it is best as a teacher to be an extrovert or an introvert, and we ask what interleaving is and how it could change teaching

Download or listen to it here.

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It looks like teachers might be getting an automatic payrise in 201314 after all - 27 June 2013

The School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) - which education secretary for England Michael Gove is obliged to consult before making changes to teachers' pay and conditions - has come in for plenty of criticism from the classroom unions in recent months.

Ever since it proposed the introduction of a new system of performance-related pay, along with the end of automatic incremental pay rises for teachers on the main pay scale, the unions have been quick to cast aspersions on the STRB's political independence.

NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates was one among many union leaders who argued that the body has been more keen to listen to the views of ministers than the unions, even going so far as to claim that "teachers may be forgiven for drawing the conclusion that the independent STRB has been leaned on".

But the body may have regained some credibility in the eyes of its union critics in its latest report, which addresses the question of how - and, indeed, whether - the proposed 1 per cent pay rise for 2013-14 should be passed on to teaching staff.

Mr Gove previously suggested any increase should be largely at the discretion of individual schools, with the rise only enforced at the top and bottom of the main pay scale.

This prompted outrage among the unions - and this time the STRB seems to have listened.

With performance-related pay being introduced from September, the STRB said applying the annual pay rise across the board would meet "the need for simplicity so schools can concentrate on preparing for implementation of [performance pay]".

Significantly, the report also acknowledges concerns about whether teaching is still an attractive profession, given the impact of the two-year pay freeze on salaries. It stressed the need to provide "underpinning support for the teacher labour market as a whole, at a time when there are early signs that the position of teachers is deteriorating in relation to other graduate professions".

Stephen Exley

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

How hard will Gove's new GCSEs be? Apparently you're going to have a say - 27 June 2013

Ofqual is to hold a public consultation into just how difficult England's new revamped GCSEs should be, the exams regulator has revealed.

"There is an issue about where the performance bar is to be set on the new GCSEs," Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, told a Westminster Education Forum event yesterday. "These qualifications are going to look and feel quite different, aren't they, when the proposals go ahead? And there is a public, open and transparent debate to be had about how that performance bar is set, where it is to be set and how it is to be maintained."

News of the extra consultation, to begin in the autumn, may surprise some.

Structural issues such as a new grading system, which the watchdog has already begun consulting on, have always been seen as a matter for Ofqual.

But many might have thought that the overall level of difficulty was something that would be stipulated by government. After all it was Michael Gove, education secretary, who personally initiated the idea of explicitly tougher replacements for existing GCSEs.

Indeed the Department for Education's deputy director of qualifications and assessments, Anna Paige, was present at the same London event yesterday and confirmed that ministers want new GCSEs to be "more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous".

Ofqual sources say that the "pass" grade is an accountability matter and therefore one for government. But the actual level of demand in the exams is something it needs to work out the detail of, and consult on.

It is understood to involve examining what more demanding exams would look like in practice, exactly how demanding they should be and how that level of demand can and should be maintained over time.

Meanwhile Ms Stacey also took the opportunity to publicly rubbish the idea that the new exams would be known as I or Intermediate Levels.

The suggestion - already disowned by the government - was made by The Times newspaper, which later reported that the idea came from within Ofqual.

"News to me, I must say," Ofqual's chief regulator said, "I thought I level was a sort of grill that you have in the kitchen! We are not considering on a change of title [from GCSE]."

"But there is no doubt", Ms Stacey added, "that at some point we are going to have to consider that if our qualifications are materially different at this level to those on offer in other parts of the UK then how are they to be differentiated?

"That is a discussion that we need to have. But we don't need to have it now."

William Stewart

Don't be afraid to tell the blog's editor Ed Dorrell what you think

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